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2019 NFL mock draft: ESPN’s Mel Kiper has the Patriots pick a tight end at #32

The Patriots need an upgrade and tight end, and Mel Kiper gives it to them in his latest mock.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ biggest need heading towards the draft is at the receiving skill positions, wideout and tight end — even more so with Rob Gronkowski no longer part of the equation. Naturally, all of the top tight end prospects will be linked to the Patriots over the next month either through meetings and workouts or via mock drafts. One of which was posted by ESPN’s Mel Kiper earlier today and it has, you guessed it, a tight end coming to New England:

Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama

What now for the Super Bowl champs? Bill Belichick always has a plan. Rob Gronkowski is retiring, and the Patriots also lost several big contributors in free agency, including Trent Brown, Trey Flowers, Cordarrelle Patterson, Dwayne Allen and Malcom Brown. They already have replacements for a few of these players, but tight end is another story. Smith is a notch below T.J. Hockenson, but he’s a solid, all-around player who can hold his own as a blocker. And we know Belichick has an affinity for Nick Saban and Alabama. This pairing makes sense.

Because of his well-rounded skill set as both a blocker and a receiver as well as his positional versatility, Smith Jr. is one of the better tight end options entering the draft — arguably the number three behind Iowa’s outstanding duo of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, both players already off the board in Kiper’s draft by the time New England comes on the clock (Hockenson goes to Denver at #10, Fant to Green Bay at #30).

While lacking the upside of the Iowa pair, Smith Jr. is still an intriguing prospect. The Alabama product, who registered 44 catches for 710 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2018, could be a day-one impact player at the next level. “His athleticism, smooth routes and strong blocking skills should translate quickly into a versatile starting tight end,” writes The Draft Network’s Jon Ledyard about the 6’2, 240 lbs tight end.

“While Smith may lack elite explosiveness, he still has the speed to win vertically as a flexed receiver while being one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft,” he continued. Indeed, he would check many of the boxes New England wants its tight ends to check. And while he may lack the elite upside of a player like Fant or Hockenson — or Gronkowski, for that matter — , Smith Jr. would be a solid addition to the Patriots’ offense. The question is whether or not the team sees the end of the first round as the spot to invest in him.